University and academic presses have long been essential to the sharing of new ideas and challenging of old assumptions, a tradition we’re celebrating during this second annual University Press Week. This year’s focus is on the ways in which AAUP member presses are helping to drive innovation in both format and subject matter, and so today we’re pleased to offer a UP Week Blog Tour post from Harvard professor Jeffrey Schnapp on the future of scholarly communication. Schnapp is Professor of Romance Languages & Literatures, faculty director of metaLAB (at) Harvard, faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and general editor of the metaLABprojects series, the first three titles of which we’ll publish in June.
What is a scholarly book? The question has an artificial ring to it even today, in the midst of a revolution that is steamrolling just about every sector of publishing, crushing longstanding assumptions but also clearing new spaces for experimentation and conversation.
To nearly anyone who has had the privilege of belonging to a research community over the course of the past century, the scholarly book has long seemed something of a given. And what was given was a set of conventions that, in the course of the twentieth century, gelled into verities that varied only slightly with respect to discipline and field. They encompassed notions regarding the proper scale and scope of a scholarly argument; the units that make such arguments up; the primacy of certain forms of evidence; standards of reference and proof; and a basic toolkit of argumentative units (from words to paragraphs to pages to subchapters to chapters). Bundled up into a discrete, compact, mechanically reproduced unit, nourished and sustained by university publishing, the structure in question has served the cause of learning exceptionally well over the course of the past century.
No wave of any digital magic wand is about to vaporize the scholarly book or the medium of print (any more than readers are about to give up their corporeality in order to evolve into pixels on an LCD). But as knowledge forms migrate to digital platforms along with nearly everything else, from culture and scholarship to archives and social networks, new alignments arise. Revolutions in media are never reducible to the mere substitution of old media by the new. Rather, they are about reshufflings of decks into which new cards have been inserted. This implies the emergence of new genres, norms, and forms. It also implies new hybridities that, in the case of the digital revolution, permit riffing off of convergences and divergences between the online and the offline, the digital and the analog.
The scholarly book was overdue for an overhaul and in my own work along the edges of what is now referred to as the Digital Humanities (but that I usually think of in terms of “knowledge design”), experimentation with new models and modes of bookishness has been a key concern. What could or should books become in the digital age? What medium-specific functions do we now want them to perform or relinquish? What’s the look of new or emerging knowledge forms when they find their way into print?
In answering such questions over the course of the past decades, I’ve tried on various solutions for size: among them books that are massively multi-authored; critical writing about the avant-gardes that traffics in avant-garde typography; websites as a dynamic bridge between books and museum exhibitions; paired analog and digital publishing models; and forms of scholarly writing that involve writing “to design,” which is to say where the book’s design is entangled with its “message.”
The metaLABprojects series was born out of a desire to deepen this vein of experimentation by forging a distinctive genre of scholarly publication endowed with the sort of curb appeal usually restricted to books found on the tables at architecture bookshops. The series abstract reads as follows:
The metaLABprojects series provides a platform for emerging currents of experimental scholarship, documenting key moments in the history of networked culture, and promoting critical thinking about the future of institutions of learning. The volumes’ eclectic, improvisatory, idea-driven style advances the proposition that design is not merely ornamental, but a means of inquiry in its own right. Accessibly priced and provocatively designed, the series invites readers to take part in reimagining print-based scholarship for the digital age.
Idea-driven and design-driven, the books are built around a “classical” core: an extended essay of roughly 30,000 words—so they respect the fundamental role performed by long forms in the advancement of knowledge. But they intermingle long forms with variations on the short that play off of conventions borrowed from WWW and magazine culture. Every essay is framed by a brief visual-verbal preface and post-face. A dozen or so “windows” open up micro-perspectives on the essay’s macro-theme. There’s a linkography instead of a bibliography. The perimeter of the covers is framed by mini-icons that sum up the book’s contents; a listing of tag lines with key topics and themes is anchored to the fold running down the inside of the French flaps. Instead of an authorial index, author names are bolded in the notes. Red pages and typographical shifts are used to mark new units within the argument. There’s four color printing throughout but the overall look is clean to the point of looking quasi-constructivist (but not without touches of anachronism of a steampunk sort).
So how might such a design concept translate into an actual book, not to mention a scholarly book? Well, the series will launch on the spring 2014 list of Harvard University Press with three volumes planted on transdisciplinary ground. The books in question are:
- Matthew Battles and Jeffrey T. Schnapp, The Library Beyond the Book
- Johanna Drucker, Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production
- Todd Presner, David Shepherd, and Yoh Kawano, Hypercities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities
Books with Long Memories – when a visitor to the Library of the Future has searched for a book in the online catalog that proved unavailable, the book remembers. Once it has returned to the shelf, it sends out a friendly text message reminder whenever the patron passes nearby.
In summary, the dream here is to forge a new genre of scholarly book that plays even as it engages in deep forms of historically informed argument: a genre whose natural home is university publishing even as it appeals to extramural audiences.
-----Day two of the UP Week blog tour continues with stops at Duke University Press, Stanford University Press, Temple University Press, University of Minnesota Press, University of Texas Press, and University of Virginia Press.